Barbara's Random Thoughts

Friday, November 18, 2005

Fiction, nonfiction, and authorial intent

(I'm continuing to finish up these previously-started posts. I wrote the bulk of this quite a few months ago, as the beginning refers to a sermon back when Scott was preaching on the Psalms.)

On Sunday, Scott used a Van Gogh quote in the sermon, something Van Gogh had written to his sister. I can't find the quote, or really remember it accurately, which is frustrating me to no end. But in it, Van Gogh was pointing out differences in their purposes for reading--he said that his sister reads for information, and he reads to discover the author's intent. Scott used the quotation to make the point that in reading Scripture, we should be seeking for God's heart, not just for information. And yes, that's kind of the point (for the Christian, anyway) in reading the Bible. But the quote started me off on a mental tangent about reading.

Then I came across this and this.

So here's another mental tangent on reading and authorial intent. =)

From that second link:

I think it's because i don't like the idea that someone is telling me a story. Yes, of course, whatever you're reading, it's been filtered through the lens of someone else's mind, and picked up an amount of distortion and aberration along the way (unless, of course, the author has an infinity corrected mind), but with fiction, that's somehow more upfront - the whole point of the work is that it' made up. With non-fiction, you at least have a chance of recognising and compensating for the failings of the author, but in fiction, the author's word is law; if something doesn't make sense, i just have to accept it and move on. I really don't like doing that.

The thing is, I feel the opposite about fiction and nonfiction. To me, with fiction, the author's word is never law. (Actually, I feel like the author's word is never really law in any situation...though there are other issues at play with that in regard to Biblical interpretation. Shall I dig out that paper I wrote in college about literary criticism and the Bible?) With nonfiction, the author is supposed to be telling the truth and you're pretty much supposed to take it that way. You can agree or disagree, whatever, but the narrative voice is straightforward. With fiction, not so much. Fiction is much more unstable in this.

"...stories don't tell you how things will turn, really...Paintings and stories are different. Paintings are steady, unchangeable; stories convulse and twist in their revelations."
--Gregory Maguire, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

One of the things that's so interesting to me about fiction is that there are so many viewpoints to consider. There's the viewpoint of each of the characters, as well as the viewpoint of the narrator, and the (probably somewhat veiled) viewpoint of the author behind the scenes. All of these add up to what the author is trying to say, which may or may not be what I want to get out of the story.

I believe pretty strongly that authorial intent should not be the primary concern, especially in reading fiction. Though I believe it should be taken into account, and it is certainly valuable to explore, there is so much more to get out of a story than just the author's agenda.

Reading between the lines is often much more interesting--looking for the author's agenda and evaluating it, evaluating the motives and agendas of the characters, evaluating my own agendas in reading. All of this becomes even more interesting when the book is a first-person narrative, and you have to evaluate the reliability of the person telling you the story, reading between the lines to see their world through eyes other than their own, even though you're only being presented with their world through their perspective. Billy Pilgrim, Humbert Humbert, and Lucy Snowe are some of my favorite unreliable narrators. They're so much fun to try and decipher.

And this is why fiction is so much more interesting to me than nonfiction. In addition to my preference for just being told a story...there are so many more levels to fiction, and that makes it so much more fun.
| posted by Barbara | 7:55 AM